Some residents return to Mullen Fire area as crews redirect to Colorado - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Some residents return to Mullen Fire area as crews redirect to Colorado

Rob Roy, Keystone (Greg Sanders, Inciweb)

CASPER, Wyo — Residents displaced by the Mullen Fire have begun to return to their properties to assess damages and winterize their homes after the Albany County Sheriff’s Office and Southern Area Type I command determined it was safe to enter some areas.

The Albany, Rambler, Moore’s Gulch, Keystone, and Lake Creek along Highway 230 were moved into a pre-evacuation status Friday, Oct. 16. Jelm Mountain and the Forbes-Sheep Mountain Wildlife Habitat Management Areas also reopened Friday, said the Wyoming Game and Fish Department said.

Operations Section Chief John Wallace said the Fox Park, Foxborough and Porter Creek communities would likely open to access by residents early this week. Only residents are being allowed in, and must access the area from the north via a sheriff’s office checkpoint near Albany with a photo ID and address.

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American Red Cross of Wyoming has placed a trailer in Albany with equipment to help homeowners clean up.

“Residents accessing their property should remain alert for hazards due to smoldering or burning fuels and the operation of truck and heavy equipment used in firefighting, tree removal, and rehabilitation,” incident commanders said.

Wallace also said that “snags,” or fire-weakened trees, also presented a danger. 

“We have a lot more snags coming down now than you’re probably used to.  You might want to bring a chainsaw in your truck when traveling,” Wallace said, in order to clear trees that fall across the roads.

Wallace said people returning were still likely to see a lot of smoke and some open flames, particularly at night as stumps and heavy fuels still burn actively. He said it will take a significant snowfall event to bring to full containment to the Mullen Fire.

The fire has not moved much in recent days despite  high winds, and precipitation this weekend is helping slow remaining hotspots in the fire’s northern perimeter.

Crews had been working in the last week to build defensive contingency lines around Ryan Park and Centennial, communities north of the fire’s spread in unburned parts of the forest. Wallace said completing those lines could protect the communities not just from the Mullen Fire, but future fires as well.

Wallace said that he was confident that the fire wouldn’t spread much more to the north, given that southern winds are rare this time of year. The inability of crews to work direct containment in this steep, densely forested area is the reason containment is still listed at 55% of Sunday.

“Residents moving back in will still see equipment around,” Wallace said. “We have to be ready for this thing to move if the weather doesn’t completely shut it down.”

Due to decreased activity on the Mullen Fire, Wallace said he had redirected four crews (about 80 people) with structure protection engines and resources to the Cameron Peak fire 25 miles southeast in Colorado. Communities there are being actively threatened by the fire’s recent spread to the southeast.

Many of the over 800 personnel working the Mullen Fire are evaluating the fire’s impacts and repairing some of the work building suppression lines, including filling in trenches and using road graters to smooth out berms. They are also patrolling and monitoring fire lines and looking for hotspots.

They are also collecting the miles of hose line and water pumps and tanks used in structure protection. A Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) team is evaluating the danger of debris flow and erosion due to the fire and suppression activities. Utility workers are surveying the power lines in the area, and some places have had power restored.

Wallace noted that he had seen porch lights on in Fox Park, which must have been left on as residents evacuated more than 3 weeks ago.

The closure area in the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest has also been reduced.

10/17/2020 Closure map of Medicine bow Forest (U.S. Forest Service)

The Mullen Fire began Sept. 17 and spread quickly in dense lodgepole pine forests, much of it beetle-killed and downed by wind events. It has burned  176,386 acres. This graphic shows the history of the fire’s spread over the past month.